The Florida Keys are a curve of about 1700 islands that start 15 miles south of Miami and extend like a bony tail into the emerald-green waters of the Caribbean. You don’t cross a national border when you drive the longest overseas highway in the world but you do enter a mystical kingdom, where island time prevails from Mile Marker 100 at Key Largo to Mile Marker 0 at Key West. The sea is seldom more than a short drive away on either side, the Atlantic Ocean a few hundred yards to the left, the Gulf of Mexico a few hundred yards to the right. The concrete ribbon of Highway 1 ties these sandbars and coral islands together as it wanders south across bridges, past manatees and mangrove trees
Film buffs should see Humphrey Bogart in a memorable old black-and-white movie called Key Largo before driving into the gateway to the Keys at Key Largo amidst a burst of colorful billboards. The most important sign points to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, which provides access to the only living coral reef in the continental United States, a reef seen by glass-bottom boat, dive boat or with snorkeling gear.
As you drive south past clusters of island civilization at Marathon and Islamorada to the capitol city of the Keys at Key West, allow time to be lured a few hundred yards off the Overseas Highway to coastal resorts, restaurants, bars, marinas and other facilities beside the sea. Rent dive boats anywhere along the whiplash of islands or in Key West. There are one or two good sand beaches, notably at Bahia State Recreational Area, but everybody’s final destination is where Highway 1 ends at Key West.
Key Westers call themselves Conchs, spelled like the famous Conch shell but pronounced “konks”. Like most islanders, they are individualists who create their own eccentric lifestyles beside the sea. They have been living from the sea for centuries, since pirates first lured Spanish galleons to watery graves on the reefs. Piracy became legal in the early nineteenth century, when any sea captain who owned a house in Key West became a licensed salvager, a “wrecker” eligible to claim shipwrecked goods as his own. There were three shipwrecks a week in those days, many caused by a wrecker with a wandering lamp, so it was a profitable business for Conchs.
Key West was the largest city in Florida, totally independent of the mainland, when Henry Flagler built his famous east coast railroad down the Keys in 1912, allowing passengers to make a ninety-mile sea voyage to Havana, Cuba, for twenty-four dollars round trip. He built the Grand Hotel, now the glamorous Casa Marina resort, which prospered until a hurricane virtually destroyed the railroad in the Labor Day hurricane of 1935. The government built the Overseas Highway to replace it. A highlight of that highway trip today is crossing the Seven Mile Bridge, which connects Knights Key, in the Middle Keys south of Marathon, to Little Duck Key in the Lower Keys.
The Conchs built a New England style town with Bahamian architecture and an island life style that makes this unique town more like a Caribbean island than a part of the American mainland. Tour Key West on either the tour train or the trolley to visit the restored Conch houses of Old Town, a highlight of this two-by-four mile island.
If you take the Trolley, disembark to visit the 21st century descendent of Henry Flagler’s famous hotel, Casa Marina Resort, or other island attractions such as Ernest Hemingway House and Museum, or the Audubon House and Gardens. You can take the next trolley back into town.
At day’s end, when both you and the sun are at the end of your day, join the people who begin to drift down Duvall Street. They are going to sunset. A popular first stop may be the open air bar atop the Pier House, but everyone eventually gathers around the street theater which occurs every evening at Mallory Square Pier. Crowds of tourists and Key Westers are there, milling about, sitting on the edge of the pier anticipating sunset. They buy brownies and Key Lime Pie from the cookie lady. They cheer on the contortionist, the fire eater, the mime, the jugglers and the tightrope walker silhouetted every night against the deepening sunset. The greatest applause is saved for the sun itself.
As the sun touches the horizon, the riot of activity goes into slow motion. People stop talking, as parishioners do when they go through the church door. The sun melts like gold, spreading its colorful blessings on the sea. Applause begins. And rises. The golden orb drops below the horizon and is gone There are no curtain calls in this theater, so the sundowners begin to move. The noise level rises. And the question forms: where should we go for dinner?Iris Sanderson Jones is a travel writer based in the Pacific Northwest. She is the author of several books including “Country Roads of Ontario” and “Quick Escapes in the Pacific Northwest”. She is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers.